COVID-19, week one in small town Ontario
With no roadmap to follow, the Mayor of Bancroft, Ontario is taking steps to lead his community through the COVID-19 crisis
Last week, while families were stocking-up on groceries and workers scrambled to figure out how to stay employed, Paul Jenkins was working with his Municipal team, trying to keep the Town of Bancroft safe, open and ready to survive.
Jenkins is the Mayor of Bancroft, a small, lower-tier Municipality located in Eastern Ontario, between Ottawa and Toronto. It’s what residents like to think of as the newer, more affordable cottage country. The Town has just under 4,000 permanent residents, with a downtown that serves as the commercial hub for the North Hastings area. There’s always been poverty but there’s also been opportunity.
In the weeks before COVID-19 hit hard in Ontario, Jenkins said his behaviour was starting to change. He’d ask his wife, Chris, to grab a few extra things at the grocery store and when he started feeling unwell, in what he describes as an unfamiliar way, he responsibly made calls to see if he should be tested for the virus.
But then his cautious “wait and see” approach had to change in an instant. The Town’s response had to scale and by Friday, March 13, it was clear to Mayor Jenkins that the world, as he knew it, was about to change.
For the Mayor, there really was no plan to follow, no emergency number to call for advice, no playbook. For Jenkins, it was a time for leadership, so he and his team got to work.
“Truthfully, I work with very talented people who recognized the severity,” Jenkins says. “We were not looking to the outside world – we’re going to do what we need to do.”
Taking on a leadership role in politics brings a certain amount of dealing with difficult situations but Jenkins admits that he never thought this would be something he would have to problem solve. This is not what anyone signs-up for in small town politics.
Over his years in office the Mayor has been through his share of localized emergency situations that included debt issues, wastewater affordability and he was a Councillor in 2013 when the Town was hit with severe flooding. And while this was all good training for Jenkins, he is painfully aware that things are different this time around.
In every other crisis Bancroft faced, outside help was available. This time, outside help is potentially sick and, in some cases, dying, making the need for a fast response the key to local survival.
Jenkins had a career working in industry, and he’s been a small business owner, so logistics are a strength. He knew a plan was needed so on Monday, March 16, Bancroft Town staff started tackling the rapidly changing list of problems that the Municipality was facing.
“We started by trying to keep people back from staff but then we sent the office staff home, where they could work safely,” Jenkins recounts.
He’s quick to note that many of the Municipal staff are women and because childcare had also suddenly stopped being provided, Moms would have to do double duty during the crisis. Public Works implemented a staggered schedule and by Tuesday, Jenkins was in touch with the Province, advocating for changes to the Municipal Act; the Provincial Legislation that sets the rules for how Municipalities and Municipal Councils function.
Jenkins made a request to have a change to the rules that prevented electronic meeting participants from being counted towards quorum. Provincial Staff responded promptly, with encouraging news, and by Tuesday afternoon when all Mayors and Reeves were invited to participate in a conference call with Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, the Provincial Government was rolling out the needed change which will now let Councils continue to meet electronically in this period of social distancing and quarantine.
Jenkins is amazed at the pace of escalation during the crisis and he’s focused on the ability to remain responsive and flexible. He’s following the advice of the World Health Organization, who implored fast, firm action on all fronts.
“Things are moving fast,” Jenkins says. “We need to keep people isolated and we need to find solutions.”
Solutions for Bancroft include everything from helping people stay healthy to finding ways to keep the business community supported, managing the influx of cottagers seeking refuge in the rural community and keeping in touch with Public Health and all levels of Government. He’s in awe of the scale of COVID-19 but he still believes that there can be positive outcomes.
“Everyday people are heroes in this crisis,” Jenkins explains. “The cleaners in hospitals, the retail workers, the truck drivers – the people that society has not treated well; they are now going to be the heroes,” Jenkins says. “The people who are toiling on the front lines, the medical folks and those who are coming out of retirement to lend a hand. These people will make a difference.”
And while front line workers are doing what they can to fight a killer virus in an unprecedented global battle, Jenkins and his team are focused on the incredibly unglamorous aspects of keeping a Town alive so that one day it might again be able to thrive.
“I’m focused on future steps going into the week ahead,” Jenkins says. “We have to get everyone to survive and we have to keep pushing this messaging. We’re going to look at how we run our Municipality in a new way, and we need to make a plan to manage our resources.”
All of this problem solving, planning and basic survival is taking up most of the Mayor’s waking hours but there is still time and space for difficult emotions, like fear.
Jenkins says he’s not afraid for himself, but he is afraid for his daughters – one works in a Toronto Hospital. He’s admittedly afraid for his community and for those he cares about. He’s afraid for the world but for people like Paul Jenkins, this kind of fear is a motivator.
“Everybody has to change,” he says. “We will get through this and we will have to get to a point where we cooperate for the benefit of everybody. We need to manage our resources and to find ways to keep going. We’re going to have to shift our thinking and understand that not every pothole is going to get fixed.”
The perspective Jenkins shares is crucial – thinking needs to shift from usual everyday operations to surviving an unprecedented global crisis. Leaders all across the world will all be called to act in new and changing ways to help as many people as possible live through the days and weeks ahead. Rural Ontario is no different, and people like Mayor Jenkins are taking the first steps to ensure that a strong local response is possible.
Published with my gratitude to Mayor Jenkins who made the time to speak in a candid way during a horrible moment in history – Barb Shaw